Beefing with vegetarians

If you’re an animal-loving herbivore like me, get ready for a double take. Thomas Sittler’s Oxford Uehiro award-winning contrarian essay on vegetarianism and free-range husbandry presents a counterintuitive but nevertheless thorough argument that the natural world might not necessarily be able to provide a better quality of life for animals than those who spend their days on free-range farms. More specifically, Sittler argues that the life of a free-range farm animal prior to slaughter is likely substantially more accommodating and offers a better opportunity for animals to thrive and enjoy life than the natural environment in which animals constantly face the terrifying threat of predators, communicable diseases, natural disasters, and a world without mercy.

In the essay, he points out that we frequently intervene in the natural world to prevent suffering in ways such as rehabilitating injured animals or coordinating and facilitating mating, and that we don’t think twice about these interventions. This is true. However, when a wild animal is rehabilitated by humans or a population is engineered to avoid extinction, it is (I would argue) generally done with the implicit intent to return the animal(s) to a naturally sustainable population for the habitat or environment. When an invasive species threatens a habitat, it is not to wage an intervention against the natural world but rather to preserve the status quo that is often threatened by human transportation of said species.

If one were to argue for constant stewardship over animals as a preferable alternative to the natural world, it is unclear where this distinction would end. Farm animals? Domesticatable animals? Endangered species? Threatened species? Mammals? Animals with a  central nervous system? Animals who can demonstrate preference and suffering? It is clear that humans lack the resources and societal will to take on such a task that would be congruent with Sittler’s premise.

Of course, with the economic engine of capitalist livestock production, you could argue that farm animals might be the only candidate for such a task and that as such, we would at least be doing the greatest possible good for the greatest number. However, we must also consider that the economic pressures of capitalism trend toward a demand for efficiency, and as long as we are relying on capitalism to fund this temporary free-range sanctuary idealism, the industry faces the same threat of a factory farming-style takeover that would make consequentialist arguments against the idea say, “I told you so.”

The paper also fails to take into account the environmental costs of raising livestock, which negatively affects both humans and ecosystems alike. According to the U.N., livestock use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface including 33 percent of the global arable land used to produce feed for livestock.” Free-range, pasture-fed animals would require even more land on which to feed. Sittler’s argument rests on the idea that this would be beneficent for the free-range animals and wild animals would effectively be put out of their misery, an idea for which practical implications would mean clearcutting rainforests and habitats rich in biodiversity and which likely sounds appalling to all but the most callous.  Nevertheless, the process would result in more fossil fuels being used for clearing land, more resources devoted to raising animals for human consumption, and an increase in large, methane-producing animals such as cows and pigs. Given the carbon dioxide and methane increase involved in livestock agriculture that is known to contribute to problems of global warming and pollution affect humans and nonhuman animals alike, this hardly seems like a beneficent change.

There is also, in my view, the equally pressing concern of anthropocentricism and the undeniable point that we lack the perspective to know an animal’s preference between the relatively safe but ultimately doomed state of living as a free-range commodity and the uncertain but non-engineered state of the natural world. To this concern, I would use the following (albeit anthropocentric) analogy: You are given the choice between prison and civilian freedom. With prison, you are ensured relative safety, a steady source of food and attention to health concerns as well as a prison yard with which to roam. With civilian freedom, you are ensured relatively nothing, and face the risk (with varying degrees) of untimely death nearly every day. Yet, as appeal records would indicate, most humans would still prefer civilian life, the analog to the natural world. Do animals have an awareness of the difference? Very difficult to say, but anecdotal accounts like those of Inky might indicate they do.

I do commend Sittler (an Oxford undergraduate) for his articulate and challenging position paper, and I have to smile about all the feathers it will ruffle. But for the time being, I remain unconvinced of the moral superiority of an omnivorous diet given the reality of capitalistic forces and the environmental impact of animal agriculture that would adversely affect the planet as a whole.



1 thought on “Beefing with vegetarians”

  1. Interesting article, thanks. However factory farming exists because of taxpayer subsidies, such as the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which incentivise over-production. Without those incentives, would some farmers cease to breed animals altogether or would they settle for breeding fewer? Whatever, there would still be fewer animals being bred for slaughter so the overall land-use of ‘free range’ would not be on a one-for-one basis viz factory farming.


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